With his second album, Trouble [Provoge}, Scott McKeon has deftly pivoted from the straight blues approach of his 2007 debut Can’t Take No More by tastefully couching his Texas-infused playing in a more sophisticated, tuneful style. A pretty big leap considering McKeon is just 23 years old. Still, the young Brit isn’t exactly a greenhorn, as he’s recently garnered opening slots with Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow, and he made his debut on U.K. national television when he was seven.
Has your playing changed since your debut?
I think I’ve gotten a bit funkier with my playing as well as with my tunes. Song-wise, I’ve always been into non-guitar music, like Questlove and the Roots and lots of ’70s soul music. On Trouble I did a version of the Babyface tune “Talk to Me,” and I’ve always liked that tune because it was R&B, but with cool blues guitar licks played over the top. That’s really appealing to me—pop song structure, but with a solo. Sonically, I’ve been getting into getting Stevie Wonder’s tones from the ’70s, like his keyboard bass and clavinet sounds rather than the straight blues guitar sound, so I’ve been using effects such as an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth and a Roger Mayer Octavia.
Trouble has a ton of fuzz on it. How did you get into that?
Jimi Hendrix and Doyle Bramhall II turned me on to how cool fuzz is. I made a fuzz pedal a couple of years ago from a schematic I found online. It’s basically the classic Fuzz Face circuit. I was surprised that it worked considering my soldering skills, but it’s my main fuzz now. I call it the Sweet Fuzz.
Do you play differently with a fuzz pedal as opposed to, say, a Tube Screamer?
Yeah. When you dig in the attack is more pronounced with a fuzz pedal, and it sustains more—but you can’t really play complex chords with it. Still, there are crazy effects and weird intervals that you simply can’t do with a Tube Screamer. I also find fuzz to be inspirational. For example, Trouble’s first track, “The Girl,” has a riff that came out right after I plugged into my fuzz—sort of this Hendrix/Kravitztype of thing. “Broken Man” is another one that is pretty reliant on that thick fuzz sound.
Robbie McIntosh played on “Scarecrow” and “So Much More” on the new record. What was it like working with him?
He really opened my world up. Before I met him, I just wanted to play blues [laughs]. The amazing thing is, Robbie’s not a flashy player. It’s the library of experience and styles that he can draw from and, most importantly, put to use when he plays on a tune. It’s amazing. When he came in the studio, he had never heard “So Much More,” but he sat down and came up with the coolest guitar part and executed it in one take.
In nearly every photo of you, you’re playing a Stratocaster. Are you exclusively a Strat guy?
Yeah, I’ve played one since I was four. My parents took me to the West End musical The Buddy Holly Story and that was where I first saw one. I came home and said, “That’s the guitar I want!” I’m still playing the same ’62 my dad bought me when I was 11—although, I think he bought it for himself. I did use a Tele on the tune “I Can Tell” from the new album, though.
Do you use all of the pickup settings on the Strat?
Yeah. Messing with the controls is a habit for me—I do it even when I’m not plugged into an amp. For the warm Strat thing, I go for the neck and middle setting and turn the tone and volume controls down a bit. Oftentimes with the fuzz, I’m on the bridge pickup, and I try and make it sound like a Gibson through a Marshall by rolling back the tone control slightly. When I use the Octavia, I’ll use the front pickup with the tone rolled all the way off for a Stevie Wonder synthlike thing.
What’s on your pedalboard?
From my guitar I hit my homemade fuzz, an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer, a Keeley Katana boost, the Mayer Octavia, Fulltone Deja Vibe and Clyde wah pedals, and a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler. I run my wah after the fuzz for a more exaggerated sound when the fuzz is on, otherwise the wah gets sort of drowned out.
Did you take lessons?
Yeah, but they were classical lessons when I was really young. When I got older my dad showed me the basics of playing rock and roll on the electric guitar with stuff by Elvis and Buddy Holly. And I realize its quite cliché, but when I first saw Stevie Ray Vaughan I was blown away. When you’re ten years old, seeing someone play with that much power is pretty moving. I was also big into Doyle Bramhall’s albums Welcome and Jellycream when I was 14. I loved the sound and production of them, from the drums to the guitar tones. Now I’m really into Derek Trucks and have shared some bills with him. He’s the most humble guy you’ll ever meet, but when he starts playing it’s unbelievable. He wanted to jam and I just thought to myself, “After he’s done, what am I going to do?”
When you sit down to practice do you break down techniques or do you just jam?
I’ve never sat down and practiced scales or broken down each element of my playing. I don’t like to over analyze stuff. I can’t really read music and I don’t know many chord names, although I know I should learn more theory. I was always scared it would interfere with playing from the heart. I don’t know that for sure, but a lot of my favorite musicians from Hendrix to SRV to Michael Jackson couldn’t read or write music.
Do you practice with a metronome?
Yeah, I began using a click track a couple of years ago when I first started recording. In the studio your time gets put under a microscope so you need to have things together. Now I think I can play to a click track and push or pull the feel and play all around the beat.
What amps did you use to track Trouble?
I used a Fender Quad Reverb, a Fender 75 into a Marshall 4x12, a Vox AC30, and a Fender Vibroverb. We miked them all, and then mixed and matched when mixing. I must say, in my head, I thought that was the best way to do it—but in reality having all of those amps available in a mix was just too much. There are too many options and too many frequencies if you use them all. I think it’s better to focus on getting one cool tone. I found that you could get so many frequencies going that there isn’t any room for other instruments. I also used IK Multimedia AmpliTube and Native Instruments Guitar Rig blended with a miked amp for a few rhythm tracks.
What are you using live?
I’ve really gotten into using one amp: a Fender Vibroverb. I used to do the multiamp thing. I would even take an amp and put it in a back room at the venue to be ambient miked for the P.A. It sounded cool, but it’s a lot of work. Plus, you should be focusing on having a good gig, not trying to hunt down a bathroom or closet to put your amp in.
Do you crank the Vibroverb?
No, I’ve actually been playing the amp quieter than I used to. I have the volume set to where the amp barely breaks up when I hit it hard and I use my pedals for any distortion after that. I use just a touch of reverb, but I’m more of a delay guy.
How tweaky do you get about your tone?
I go through stages of being fussy about little things like batteries and cables and what pedal goes where in the signal chain, but then I remind myself that Albert King didn’t care about his cables. He plugged into what he had and he made it sound good and there was no mistaking—what you heard was coming from him.